“Waylon was so great with his book, I felt like I really didn’t need to write mine,” explains Jessi Colter, talking about why she waited so long to write her own memoir. “And I always felt that if I ever did write mine, I’d tell why I made certain turns, so people would understand.
The Waylon that the dark haired beauty – and at 73, Colter is still striking – is speaking of is her late husband, Waylon Jennings, one of the original members of country music’s Outlaw Movement. A Country Music Hall of Famer, his wild life and raucous music created a hard-edged take on Hank Williams that showed how country’s roots really were rock’s origin, too.
Beyond being modest, which the woman born Miriam Johnson is, the only woman to appear on country’s first platinum album Wanted! The Outlaws, with Jennings, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser, is one to eschew fame. Even when “I’m Not Lisa,” the faltering ballad about a man who can’t forget his last girlfriend even though he has found another love, was heading to the top of the charts, Colter preferred her husband’s shadow.
“When I had to begin performing when ‘Lisa’ was gold, I was a wreck,” she confesses. “Waylon had wanted it to be so perfect for me: There was a grand piano covered in roses, and I went out and just stood there. Then I got down on my knees and bowed my head, and was just still for the longest time.
Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter at the start of their "lifelong love affair." Courtesy of Hope Powell.
“I went into another zone. The spirit enveloped me, and took over. My mother and father, who were far away, could sense my fear just at that moment. They felt it, and they joined hands and prayed, and a comfort came over me. I don’t really remember, but I got through it. That was all.”
For people under 30, “I’m Not Lisa” is — at best — a footnote in a Billboard book of hits. But if you lived through the rock, disco and even country of the ‘70s, the pained but resolved voice that spoke with such courage to the lover who was missing the true beauty before him shared a vulnerability that was so raw, you had to listen.
Colter, who was raised in a strict Christian home under her preacher mother, had always been musical. Married to Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy in her early 20s, she’d released a few local singles, then retired to be a “wife,” missing the music terribly and hating the tedium of the Beverly Hills lifestyle. By the time she and Jennings got together, it was time for music to again start seeping from her pores.
Jennings, who’d not quite come into the full thrust of what his fame would be, was a conflicted man who was equally passionate about his wife’s music. As much partners in love and life, creating songs and making records deepened their connection and their bond. Jennings convinced Chet Atkins to sign Colter; Jennings also encouraged the record deal that made the vibrant songwriter a pop sensation.
Jessi Colter and Lenny Kaye. Credit: David McClister
Ironically, it is only now since Jennings has passed on that Colter returns to the spotlight. Not only with a record – Psalms, produced by Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, but a memoir – An Outlaw & A Lady: A Memoir of Music, Life with Waylon, and the Faith that Brought Me Home – with noted celebrity ghostwriter David Ritz. To add irony to the ecstasy: Kaye, who co-produced Psalms, is the co-writer of Waylon: An Autobiography.
Though never craving the spotlight, Colter’s life has been rich and astounding. Beyond playing piano in her mother’s church as a teenager, writing and selling songs as a Beverly Hills housewife, facing a divorce, then falling in love with the challenging Jennings, there have always been those threads of living life on its terms, facing one’s fears and figuring out how to move through them.
In some ways, the memoir is the story of how and Psalms’ dozen songs serve as the document of the way she got through. With a smile in her voice, Colter explains, “I literally lived in the Psalms for well over 15 years. It’s a daily guide and a refuge. If you will open them, and read them, it will read you if you’re willing.”
She pauses, almost sparkling in her conviction. “It’s being in touch with the divine. There really is nothing else you need. These Psalms carry the divine. Like Bob Dylan says, ‘Strengthen the things that remain.’ It’s good counsel.”
It’s also intriguing material for an album from the woman who’s not only been the mate of the prototype Outlaw, but she’s the mother of insurgent country’s Shooter Jennings. With each, there have been challenges, issues that were larger than her love and her will, and in that acceptance, Colter found her faith to be the rock that got her entire family through.
Having met Kaye during the years Jennings was making hardcore honky tonk music on the rock & roll fringes and spending time with him during the writing of Waylon: An Autobiography, he seemed an unlikely, yet perfect choice for her foray into musical meditations on some of the most beloved Scriptures.
“We did two separate basic tracks, just Lenny and I,” she recalls. “Over the years, he’s added a lot (of things to the tracks). Patti Smith tours a lot, all over the world – so it dragged on, but he never stopped working.
“And I loved everything he did. He’d have these pristine musicians in, play the tracks and let them listen, then ask, ‘Do you have something?’ He wanted to keep the process of how it began, and that’s how he proceeded.”
He also wanted to coax maximum beauty from the tracks. Bringing in musicians and letting them find their way, making sure they’re carefully immersed into the tracks so they can shine in the same way Colter does.
“They loved it! The response has been amazing — from the musicians, and the people who’ve heard it. I’m glad they didn’t pigeonhole it, because The Psalms transcend all the religions and the intellect; they are a comfort for us all.”
The alternative/rock Kaye believed there was something extraordinary in the collection. Using his own impressive network of contacts, he convinced the folks at Sony Music’s prestigious re-issue label, Legacy, to take a meeting.
“I remember saying, ‘Lenny, do you think anything will happen (with these songs)?’,” Colter recalls. “And he’d say, ‘No wine before its time.’ It was so funny and such a vibe, everything has so much light with him, so I just rode the wave.
“Then when he was ready, we went to Legacy, where they brought 12, maybe 15 people together to listen to (Psalms). And that just does not happen. The Sony crew is marvelous, the way they work together from the art department to the sales people. It’s all truly one team.”
While Psalms had been recorded over a number of years, An Outlaw and A Lady was more linear. Noted celebrity memoirist Ritz dug into Colter’s story looking for the truth that ran deeper than merely the chronology or the facts.
What he found – amongst the high profile husbands, the stand by your man woman facing down rapacious drug use – was surprising. But it was also the theme that drew Colter deeper into the work of writing the book.
“David was very intuitive,” the Arizona native recalls. “We were talking, and he said, ‘This book is about your mother,’ because there were so many places where the desire of my heart poured directly from how I was raised.
“I left the teaching so early, but the way she dealt with me showed such wisdom. It went so deeply into me, and I didn’t ever realize it until much later, it was there. But even when I had fallen away, I had forgotten sometimes prayers we pray are how we live our lives.
“People need hope and inspiration,” she continues. “They need to know they can believe. I remember (during some of her trials with Jennings, during the worst of his drug use) realizing, ‘I either can be someone Waylon can believe in, and be here, or I can leave him.’ My mother taught me that, and I desired so to do the right thing.”
Jessi and her dog, Cowgirl. Credit: Charles Gabrean
Colter did. As both her book and Jennings’ book suggest, it was Colter who provided the strength for Jennings to have the courage to get off drugs once and for all. For Colter, that strength came straight from her mother.
“I had wondered how I could let the world know about her. This generation being who they are, I wanted them to understand what someone like her can mean, what they give the world. So when David said that, it felt right. I’ll never reach that standard, but I can offer this story.”
In a convergence of divine intervention, the memoir and the album arrived in proximity. The kind of marketing acumen that’s nearly impossible to orchestrate, though, was not strictly intentional.
“It’s amazing,” Colter offers, as the afternoon fades away. “When I spoke to the book people a year or year and a half ago, they weren’t sure – and Sony gave us no idea when Psalms was going to come out. They were two separate projects with their own timing.”
Pausing to smile softly, she picks up, “I believe it was divine intervention. God planned this. He had to. You have to realize: I was pretty calloused when I’d gotten away from my faith (all those years ago), from what I was, so when I came back to my faith, it was profound.
“There was always God. I was at the end of everything I tried, and I said it almost jokingly. But that’s all it took for my soul to find renewal. For a year I just wept. If you open your heart to it, in repentance, peace will come.”
Having chaired an all-star tribute concert to her late husband with Willie Nelson last year, she realizes the power of legacy and what the music contains. If she’s preferred being in the background, she’s slowly emerging. And it’s her faith that helps her find her footing. “There’s a lot of newness in my life,” she shares. “I’m having to step out and grow, to open up, and in that, I’m sharing my spiritual experience. You know, everyone must seek their own salvation. Working out your salvation, God says, ‘Acknowledge me, and I will help.’”
Understand, too, that God’s time is not our time. Faith is unto itself, and trusting your prayers is essential. As Colter witnessed, sometimes the fullness of time holds the miracle if you can just hold on.
For the devout Christian – whose great love had spent a lifetime resisting – her lifetime of prayers saw fulfillment shortly before Jennings passed. As the slight woman remembers, “Waylon was with this minister, who was going to hear his profession – and he said, ‘No, I want Jesse to do this.’ In all the time I’d tried, I’d never been able to get Waylon to stop resisting.
“But in God’s time, everything happens. I know my husband: he loved God the Father in his own mind. I think he thought he’d gone too far, so he couldn’t reconcile. But it happened, just as he and God desired.”
The joy is palpable as Colter tells the tale. Never one to doubt, her faith might’ve been stretched a little thin. Still, she held on. She kept her faith in spite of every indication to the contrary.
“It’s something I’ll cherish to this day,” she continues softly. “I’ve had such great highs in my life, and I know I’ll have it again. I’ve had wonderful times, very needy moments, and through it all, one thing was consistent: God.”
For the woman who has toured the world with good friends Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson (along with their very strong wives), raised a family, made music on her own, helped people through their struggles and continues to meet life on its terms, Colter doesn’t swagger as she says this. Faith, like breathing, just is. To surrender to it is to float quietly in a state of grace – and after all of it, grace is what informs her life, her music in Psalms and even her very candid memoir. To endure is inevitable, to seek the higher ground is what she’s hoping to share with all who seek.
Cover image: James Minchin III.